Revival, Gillian Welch’s 1996 debut, is a cornerstone of Americana, or alt-country as it was called at the time. It raised questions of authenticity—Welch, who grew up in Los Angeles, and guitarist David Rawlings met at Boston’s Berklee College Of Music and were blatantly trafficking in Appalachian folk themes and images—but the stark clarity and world-weary tone sounded perfect. Boots No. 1: The Official Revival Bootleg is a companion piece to Revival on the occasion of its 20th anniversary. It’s a 21-track set of demo and live versions, including eight outtakes. It doesn’t add a lot to our understanding of Revival, however: Many of the arrangements on the T Bone Burnett-produced album were as spare as demos, so to hear Welch and Rawlings work through, say, “Orphan Girl” is to hear a less confident or less well-recorded version of basically the same track. Still, it’s cool to discover the unreleased songs, including Johnny Cash “One Piece At A Time” homage “Dry Town,” and to be reminded of how great Revival is.
If you’re looking for the meltingly hot wall of sound that California garage-rock champions Thee Oh Sees are known for in their new LP (released just a few months after their previous album), you may be disappointed. Here, John Dwyer and Co. wax bucolic, bringing forth strange psych/folk sounds that bring to mind twisted Arthurian legend (with flute solo!) more than the kind of overwhelming sternum-crushing sound for which they’re known. But anyone who likes Thee Oh Sees knows that there are many faces to Dwyers’ work, ranging from electronic twiddling to psych trance. Some of this widening gyre of experimental sound comes through on An Odd Entrances, but there’s a definite misty-isle feel to this record, culminating in the Beatlesque “At The End, On The Stairs.” It may not be what you expect, but it’s got the same Dwyer DNA that’s always made the band compelling.
A Hand Through The Cellar Door finds Luke Temple stripping down his performance to the bare minimum. Subtle acoustic bass, quiet drums and occasional string and piano accents support his strummed acoustic guitar, leaving his quiet, expressive singing at center stage. Temple is a literary writer, and many of these songs sound like short stories set to music. “The Birds Of Late December” describes the slow disintegration of a marriage using sparse, bleak images of winter weather. “Maryanne Was Quiet” follows a shy young wife as she descends into madness, attempts suicide and is reborn as a more confident person. On “The Case Of Louis Warren,” a feared bully almost dies in a flaming car crash, only to emerge as a kinder, gentler person. “Ordinary Feeling” and “The Masterpiece Is Broken” are more traditional folk ballads—moody, introspective snapshots of the day-to-day dissatisfactions of ordinary life described with compassion and keen insight.
The debut solo outing from the lesser-known half of the wildly underrated 2 Bears (alongside Hot Chip’s Joe Goddard) is a curious affair. At 27 minutes, it’s more of a sampler platter than a full, cohesive statement—an oddball smattering of pop songs behaving like dance tracks and vice versa—but much of what’s here is worth salivating over. First single “Right Time” remains a towering highlight: a glowing, sumptuous, casually anthemic filter-disco slow-burner that’s one of the best tracks of 2016 in any genre. Nothing else follows suit or even really tries: The twinkly, laid-back, acid-tinged house of “Llama Farmer” is in the same ballroom, at least. But otherwise, “Carried Away” veers into rollicking, quick-footed (and strangely introspective) piano rock, “Shoppin’ For A Shaman” is dozy, brightly plodding sunshine psychedelia, and “Poor Bitch” is a 90-second political sing-song/Beat-poetry goof. All told, it’s definitely a head-scratcher, but there’s plenty of that ineffable ursine magic on display. Abundant evidence exists that while he may be selfie-obsessed, Rundell is a musically generous, gregarious soul.
—K. Ross Hoffman
Danish pianist Agnes Obel’s music is the sound of a haunted head and a haunted heart. Spectral keyboard lines and ghostly, sometimes pitch-shifted vocals float through her third album, which is less acoustic than her first two releases, and more processed, but sounds no less human and aching. Though it would be misleading to compare Obel’s music to Nico’s, Obel works a similar vein of inscrutable lyrics set to music that sounds more derived from chamber orchestras and gritty minor-key ballads than from most contemporary popular forms. Too, while Obel is frequently compared to Joanna Newsom in her eclectic approach to arrangements and her tendency to sparse component parts in the music, the songs on Citizen Of Glass feel more solid and lyrically more grounded in the known world, as on the gorgeous “It’s Happening Again” and “Trojan Horses.” This is music for dark seasons, both of the soul and of the earth.